Central Valley

Valley cities' seasonal activities getting some trims, but there's still plenty to do

As city governments continue to look for ways to cut back their budgets, some of the pastimes of summer — softball games, day camps, recreation center games — are among the targets.

Modesto is making significant cuts to its recreation programs; other cities are changing what they offer to fit family budgets that also are tighter.

"We like to keep our programs affordable," said Karen Packwood, recreation supervisor for the city of Turlock. "Oftentimes, we will go out and get programs sponsored to offset some of the costs."

Sponsorships for Little League teams are nothing new. But Packwood said her staff has worked with businesses to help pay for other programs, as well. One example is a cooking class for first- through sixth-graders with food provided by Safeway. Target sponsors art classes.

"In the past we might have just built those materials into the program as the program fee," Packwood said.

Packwood and other recreation officials said demand for their programs has risen as the economy faltered.

In Oakdale, recreation supervisor Linda Royalty said most of the programs from last year are returning, including adult sports leagues, senior activities and swim classes for children. And there's a new one: Sunday outdoor movie nights, thanks to an outdoor screen the city's Rotary clubs bought for the events last year.

Outdoor movie nights are popular in Modesto and Turlock, too. More than 700 people attended the first movie night in Turlock over Labor Day weekend.

"It's a family-friendly, affordable event," Packwood said. Admission is $2; free for children 3 and under. "With this economy, people maybe aren't traveling as much. That's why I think the attendance is up."

In Modesto, the Parks, Recreation and Neighborhoods Department needs to cut the equivalent of 10¾ full-time positions for a savings of $1.2 million in the budget year that starts July 1. Director Julie Hannon said that will mean cuts at the city's recreation centers, which will operate six hours per day rather than eight.

"Additionally, the summer camp programs will be eliminated along with the Graceada Park program and the Youth Commission," she said. The city is considering looking for a private operator to handle its sports leagues.

Jill Humphrey hopes a solution can be found. She and her husband have played in Modesto's Sunday night co-ed softball league for a couple of years.

"It's a good time for lots of families, with our kids hanging out together," she said. Team members have discussed the problem and would be willing to play during the day to save the cost of operating lights. Other costs, such as umpires, come from fees that participants pay.

But Humphrey said she doesn't blame the city, which is facing a $12.7 million shortfall in its general fund.

"I just get it that it's kind of what's happening everywhere and every industry," she said.

Children take priority

It's happening in Ceres, where recreation supervisor Traci Farris said: "We have definitely had to tighten up the purse straps and really look at what programs are doing well and eliminate or replace programs that are not covering costs."

Farris said her staff noticed that given a choice between youth and adult programs, parents will enroll their children and give up their own activities. The city is partnering with the Ceres Unified School District to keep open some aquatics and sports programs.

"We took a hard look at our budget and chose to make cuts that wouldn't affect the citizens — such as office supplies, memberships and training — rather than programming," Farris said.

Riverbank is trying to keep its programs self-sufficient. It's closing a community pool on Sundays but renting it for private events.

The city is supporting classes and programs that already pay their own way with fees. And it's cutting costs by reducing its contracts with private companies for some park maintenance.

"We have always had a small staff, so there is not much to cut. Our goal is to get through this and continue to grow," said Sue Fitzpatrick, the city's parks and recreation director.

With money so scarce, cities including Modesto and Turlock have dropped their scholarship programs, which helped low-income families pay for classes and camps. Both departments are seeking grants and trying to get donations for scholarship funds.

"What we don't want is people not to participate because they can't afford it," Packwood said.

So her staff, like others, is trying to get the best bang for the bucks it has left.

"We sent letters out to business, and staff here are constantly in contact with serv-ice clubs," she said. So far, the recreation department has managed to stay afloat.

"Compared to five years ago, I don't think there are fewer things offered," Packwood said. "We as staff just are having to be creative about begging and borrowing — I don't want to say steal."

Bee staff writer Patty Guerra can be reached at pguerra@modbee.com or 578-2343.